Friday, October 07, 2005

The Thirst and the Quenching 

Psalm 23 and the Exile
By Christian Neill Skoorsmith
First Published on DesperatePreacher.com, October 2005
(For Pentecost +21)

Do you remember those 7-UP commercials from a few years back? They had a whole string of them - a group of young people out in the desert or along some abandoned byway, and it's oppressively hot and the sun's beating down and everything's dry - no one can hardly move, it's so hot; they can hardly breathe, they are so thirsty. And then somebody pulls out the ice cold 7-UP, all dripping with perspiration, and as they open it you hear that "chi-chish". And all of a sudden the rainclouds burst, it's raining and people are smiling; people are happy and they're dancing and they're drinking.... Remember those? Ah, good times with 7-UP.

It's kind of funny, though, when you're thinking of these huge cultural icons of thirst, they only give you enough thirst to let you enjoy the thirst-quenching power of 7-UP. They go straight through the thirst, right to the drinking. The first and foremost concern is the thirst-quenching.

When I think about the image of "thirsting after God", I very quickly realize I'm probably the last person who should talk to you about it. Not because I don't know anything about thirsting - don't get me wrong. (Sometimes it seems there's little else in my life besides the thirsting.) But because when you're thirsting you don't want someone to talk to you about thirst. You want someone to tell you where to find a glass of water. WHen you're hungry you don't want to talk to someone about hunger. You want to talk to someone about where to find a good steak!

I don't know if I can lead you to a glass of water. I have to admit that sometimes I don't know if there's a glass of water out there to be led to. But fortunately, I'm not entirely alone in those feelings.

I'm reminded of Jeremiah in the Bible. Now Jeremiah is an interesting character - does anyone know the story of Jeremiah? It's a long story, and most of us probably know at least a part of it. But probably few of us can bring to mind much of a picture of Jeremiah - which is funny, because Jeremiah is one of characters in the Bible we know the most about. More than any other character in the whole book - New Testament, Old Testament - we know the most about Jeremiah. Which is strange because his book isn't the longest in the Bible. Isaiah is longer. Genesis is longer. But the thing about Jeremiah's book is that he had a very dedicated friend, a biographer, that followed him around and wrote the book of Jeremiah for him.

Jeremiah's friend, his name was Baruch, wrote down biographical data like where Jeremiah was born, when he was born, what kind of issues were around when he was growing up. Also, when Jeremiah spoke to the people there was Baruch writing his statements down. And Baruch also wrote down what people said back to Jeremiah. Baruch recorded the letters that Jeremiah wrote to people, so we can read them to this day - and he had the forethought enough to copy down the responses to Jeremiah's letters. So we have a whole picture of Jeremiah. But what is most revealing about Jeremiah is that Baruch records in several places the lamentations of Jeremiah.

Jeremiah was a prophet. He spoke to the people, and as we all know from the story of Jesus as well as the other prophets, prophets aren't often listened to, especially in their homelands. That's a very frustrating thing. Jeremiah was particularly frustrated by it, and several times in the book he just lays it all out and expresses his anger and his despair, his resentment at being treated the way he's being treated. He's doing the work of God, following God's word, and the people aren't respecting him.

Now, the story's a little more complicated than that, of course, but not from Jeremiah's point of view. Jeremiah would give a prophesy - he would go to a town and say, "this is what God wants you to hear..., this is what's going to happen...." Then time passes and things don't happen exactly quite as Jeremiah had said. He wasn't totally wrong, but he wasn't entirely right, either. SO the people in the village would say oh Jeremiah, you don't know what you're talking about. You're not a prophet of God. And Jeremiah would cry out "I am, I am" and then go back to God and yell at God "Why did you let me down on this one? I was out there, I was risking for you!" And then Jeremiah would get a thought and say to God, "Since I'm your prophet and they didn't listen to me, smite these people! Smite them for making fun of me, and then they'll know."

So Jeremiah comes back in town thinking he's going to be looking pretty good pretty soon. But alas, the people weren't smitten, and so again he's made to feel the fool in front of the people. And he goes back to God and cries out his lamentations, feeling desperately deserted and abandoned.

In these lamentations it's clear what Jeremiah wants, because he's constantly talking about and seeking that Psalm-23 kind of feeling. You know, "the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He causes me to lie down in green pastures, with the little brook running by and the deer dancing playfully in the distance. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I shall not fear, for the Lord is with me, thy rod and they staff protect me." You feel supported. Jeremiah constantly wants that feeling - he wants to lie down in the green pastures and know that God is protecting him; that even though he goes into a town and risks his reputation and honor, that God will support him. He wants that, those great feelings, the Psalm-23 experience. But all too often he feels like he's not getting that.

The thing that we forget, oftentimes, is that before Psalm 23 comes Psalm 22. How many can tell me how Psalm 22 starts out? (no one raises hand, probably) This tells us something - we're all 7-UP kind of people, right? We love the thirst-quenching.

Psalm 22 starts out: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me. In you our ancestors trusted. They trusted and you delivered them! But I cry out and you do not protect me." Later on in the psalm it says this: "I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart is like wax, it has melted within me. My mouth is dried up, and my tongue sticks to the top of my mouth. I lay myself down in the dust of death."

And, I'll note, this psalm is three times as long as Psalm 23.

The psalmist recognized that even though there's this Psalm-23 moment, there's also a long dark night of the soul, a Psalm 22, where you have to come to terms with that thirst. Not just the thirst, but with the thirsting. Because that's part of the process, too.

Now, I got my degree in philosophy, which means I spent a lot of my time reading a lot of dead people. And if you study hard enough you should come out of your degree with a few good quotes and hopefully some good ideas. One of the ideas that stuck with me was by a guy named Hegel. Hegel put forth the idea - which seems like common sense to us now, but back then it was revolutionary - he said there's always a thing, a thesis, and when it appears it is negated, conflicted, it encounters something opposite or different and through the process of that conflict something new is born. Something better. But as soon as that is born, it encounters its own conflict, its own negation. And again, out of that process something new is born. And it goes on and on.

This idea doesn't seem all that insightful or revolutionary to us because that's how revolutionary the idea was, it became part of our common sense. Sure, that's how history progresses. That's how people develop. It makes sense to us now. But Hegel was one of the first people to point that out.

One more thing Hegel pointed out was that not only is this the way history unfolds and the spirit grows, but it isn't a bad way. All too often we're like the 7-UP commercials - we have the thing, our abandoned byway or desert scene, and we want to rush through it to the refreshing rainstorm dancing-in-the-puddles scene. But Hegel pointed out - and this is one of my favorite phrases of all of his works - that we should tarry with the negative, tarry a while. Not because it's necessarily a good thing, but because it is part of the process, too. When we encounter the difficulties in our lives, those desperate, thirsting moments, don't rush through them - come to terms with them.

When Hegel points out the value of these experiences that isn't to say that these bad times are actually good. It doesn't make evil good. But tarry a while with it. Explore it. Know it as part of what you will become.

I think that's a part of what Psalm 22 is about - tarrying a while with that sense of abandonment, that thirst. When you're thirsty, feel the thirst, don't just rush through to that drink of water.

Back to Jeremiah. Jeremiah lived in a time where Babylon, off to the East, was becoming a huge power. It was becoming very wealthy, and had a very advanced military, and they were conquering countries all around them. Jeremiah saw Babylon as the instrument of God, and he told the Israelites "You guys have not been behaving well. You have not been kind to the orphans and the widows, the disadvantaged in among you. You have not been pursuing social justice, as you ought to have been. You're too fixated on temple ceremonies and sacrifices."

Now remember that at this point in history, Israelite identity centered around the Temple in Jerusalem. The closer you lived to the Temple, the closer you were to God, in both a physical and spiritual sense. The more often you went to the Temple, the more often you were in good stead with God. The centrality of the Temple was a really important part of their religion at this point.

Jeremiah was trying to encourage them to see God everywhere, not just at the Temple, and particularly among the poor and disadvantaged among the people. Jeremiah said Babylon was going to act as the instrument of God to punish Israel. Babylon is going to sweep in and occupy Israel.

Now, of course, what do the Israelites say to this? Baah, you haven't been right about anything yet, Jeremiah! God is on our side. We're the chosen people. We have nothing to worry about - even the king says that!

But we have the benefit of hindsight, don't we. We know how the story ends. Babylon did conquer Israel. In fact, to such an incredible extent that for several generations they occupied Israel and ruled it from afar. And not only that, they also took a full third of the population of Israel back to Babylon as slaves. Imagine that! One out of every three people. That's a huge number of people. We talk about the devastation that the Plague had on Europe in the middle ages and that was only one in five people. Imagine one-third of our city taken away to a foreign land.

Imagine being one of those Israelites who was taken away to Babylon. Now you're not only removed from your country, your home, your family and your people, you're also removed from your god. Remember that the Temple was the physical residence of God in the Israelite religion at this time. Talk about abandonment. Talk about despair. Talk about feeling far away from God and thirsting for a closer relationship with God. Can you feel that?

Of course, the people who were exiled wanted to know when this was going to be over. They wanted to know when they could come home. Was this going to last a month? A year? Surely, no longer than two years! God has to hear the pleas of God's people. So they wrote letters back.

Jeremiah turned out to be right about this whole situation, so they said, "Jeremiah, ok, you're a prophet. Tell us, when is this going to be over. When am I going to be able to come home. Because my wife, or my mom, she needs me."

Jeremiah wrote back to them, and what did he say? He said, build houses in Babylon. Not only build houses, but marry people. Not only marry people, but have children in Babylon. And not only that, but have your children get married in Babylon, because you guys are going to be there for a while. That's not the answer they wanted to hear. But imagine if you will that they were being told to tarry with the negative. That they were going to spend seventy plus years in the negative, so that something new could be born as they came back.

This doesn't assuage the kind of desperation, the kind of separation they felt. In fact, in Psalm 137 is preserved one of these episodes. It reads: "By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows by the river's edge we hung up our harps" because we couldn't sing, there was no happiness left in us. We were removed from our homes, our families, our friends, our religion, our god, our spiritual and emotional investments... everything! We were abandoned. We had no hope, there was no reason to sing anymore. So they hung their harps on the willows.

But then, adding insult to injury, it says in Psalm 137, "our captors asked us for songs; our tormentors asked us for mirth, saying 'Sing us one of the songs of Zion.'" Now imagine this - the very cause of your despair, the very root of your separation, the very force behind everything bad that has happened now asks of you a song!

It's sort of like when God was talking to Jeremiah. Jeremiah would rant and rail and yet God would say, "Wait, listen, I have something more I want you to do." That's not the answer you want to hear.

Here the Israelites are thrown far and wide, enslaved, and they're being asked by their enslavers for a song.

Songs are powerful things, however. Whenever you are in the depths of despair a song can remind you of what the world was like, what it might be like again in the future. A song can be a triumphant song, pumping you up! (Choose a good peppy hymn to reference here.) How can you come to sing that song when you are buried in sorrow? When you are so filled with defeat, how can you sing a song of victory? That was the challenge that the Israelites faced in the exile in Babylon.

One of the things we can do is probably the same thing the Israelites did. We change the words ever so slightly, just enough to surprise us and give us new meaning, to make our voices and our hope and our faith new to us again, fresh, young and present. Not just the old song of victory, but a new song that confesses a knowledge of despair and thirst. Not just the Psalm 23 joy and repose, but a Psalm 22 that testifies to our longsuffering, and our slogging through the darkness to the next psalm in our lives. (Change the words of that peppy hymn - do it! One of the verses, after dancing with hope, loving through the pain, etc., should be "we will tarry with the negative" and then "dancing with the creative," or something similar.)

We could be like the 7-UP commercial. We can taste just a little bit of thirst, and then shoot through to the thirst-quenching. We can be like that. But I wonder if we can't ask ourselves if we're doing ourselves a disservice. If we're not missing out on something. If we're not taking in the whole experience of being human, of being in relationship, of growing and experiencing the whole process of change.

Hand in hand with the Psalm 23 - laying-in-the-fields-with-the-sun-on-your-face-and-everything-happy-and-secure - there is the Psalm 22 - darkness, alienation, fear and separation. The key is to recognize both of them as an integral part of who you are and who you are becoming. But they both come together. Don't forget, when you're reading "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want" to remember "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me." But just as important, when your heart is like wax and melted within you, when your mouth is dried up and your tongue sticks to the top of your mouth, and when you are laying yourself down in the dust of death, that there is also a place where God's rod and staff protect you, where God prepares a table for you and anoints your head with oil.

There is no Psalm 23 without Psalm 22. But Psalm 22 just isn't worth it if there isn't Psalm 23 to get to.

May kindness and faithful love pursue you every day of your life, and all of us make our homes in the house and heart of God for all time to come.


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